Wednesday 20 March 2019

Visiting the Last Blockbuster in Australia

Australia's last Blockbuster store is set to close its doors for good at the end of March, so I paid it a visit to reflect on the demise of video rental stores.

Gathering dust: The emptying shelves at
Blockbuster Morley.
For those of us who grew up in a pre-streaming era, Blockbuster and its contemporaries offer a window into a simpler time, when accessing films meant actually leaving the house and didn’t depend on a stable internet connection. Many a sleepy Sunday was wiled away shuffling across the sticky carpets of the suburban Blockbuster, with everything from bargain bin dreck to obscure arthouse lining the dusty shelves. 

For me, a visit to a video rental store was an enthralling dive into a world of possibility, as well as an escape from life itself. A defining memory of my first few months living in Australia is dozens of trips to my local Video Ezy store, as 15-year-old Rhys grappled with being uprooted from a stable life in England and whisked across to scorching hot Perth, with no friends to speak of during the lengthy summer school holidays. 

My younger brother and I would cycle through the 40-degree sun to pick out a stack of films to tie us over the next couple of days, as we waited for our first semester at an Australian school. It wasn’t much fun, but it was something. We watched a lot of movies that summer. 

For most people, especially cinephiles, video rental stores were a gateway drug to furthering their love of film. Who knows which obscure indie or B-grade schlock the next visit would reveal? And Blockbuster is the biggest brand on the block. Which is why the recent news of Australia’s final Blockbuster closing its doors later this month has made the headlines. 

Blockbuster Morley, not just the last in Australia but also the second-last in the whole world, is set to close at the end of March. All stock must go, for real this time. So I decided to pay the store a visit, initially in search of bargains but also to rediscover what made Blockbuster, and the video rental store as a whole, such an enticing concept in days gone by. 

The irony of visiting Blockbuster Morley the same weekend Captain Marvel hit cinemas was not lost on me. One, a product that delights in misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1990s to such as degree that its main character literally crashes through the bright blue and yellow roof of a Blockbuster during its heyday; the other, a dusty relic that has been surpassed by an increasingly digital media landscape. The contrast could not have been more stark.

Carol Danvers crashes through the roof a humble Blockbuster in Captain Marvel (2019).

Video rental stores have been dying a slow death for a number of years, so it should come as no surprise that Blockbuster – as a brand – is disappearing from Australia all together. Visiting Blockbuster Morley, it was immediately apparent that the brand has struggled to keep pace with not just technology, but the cultural zeitgeist. Splashed across its blue exterior were popular film characters from a decade (or three) ago, such as Jack Sparrow, Indiana Jones, Arwen and Yoda. Circling through the overhead speakers were soundbites and promos for 2015 releases that were “coming soon” to home release. 

The range of titles on offer – granted, a few days into its grand “buy bye Blockbuster” closing down sale, but still two weeks before it closed for good – was slight. Classics were thin on the ground; popular tentpoles few and far between. Most of what was left lining the gradually emptying shelves consisted of forgotten B-grade action tripe (Escape Plan, Battleship, 300: Rise of an Empire) or DTV horror with titles like Secrets in the Walls, Shiver, The Thirst and Tormented

I was able to fish out a couple of gems – Inherent Vice, Attack the Block, Holding the Man ­– but by and large the selection was meagre. My hopes of unearthing some classics were dashed; as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a section earmarked for classics at all. Truth be told, I left a little disappointed. 

The shift away from physical media towards intangible digital libraries is more disappointing still. Part of the allure of perusing a Blockbuster is seeing the choices fan out in front of you – scrolling through a digital library such as Netflix or Stan just ain’t the same as craning your neck sideways to read the spines on the boxes. 

The same can be said of the book or vinyl record – something about being able to flick through the pages or slip the cover on and off is satisfying. And although it’s a pain to find somewhere to store them all, I wouldn’t trade my physical collection of Blu-rays and boxsets for a digital equivalent in a million years. At least they won't disappear overnight like some Netflix titles.

With Blockbuster gone and Video Ezy relegated to a few dozen automated ‘kiosks’ (basically vending machines for films), the field of choice continues to narrow for consumers. In the years to come, the concept of renting a physical disc from a dedicated store will fade into an oddity for younger generations to scoff at – similar to that of the rotary phone, dial-up broadband or the compact Walkman (which, strangely, I still owned and used up until 2004ish). 

In the end, the whole endeavour (a good 45-minute drive there and back) was underwhelming. Sure, it was fun to ‘step back in time’ and scan the shelves, hunting for something unseen or unexpected, but it also highlighted how the humble video rental store just doesn’t stack up in terms of convenience or budget in 2019. Gone but not forgotten; preserved forevermore by the likes of Captain Marvel. Is this what getting old feels like?

Header image credit: Martin Kennealey/Community News Group.

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